Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 November 2008

Obama’s Strategic Vision


We haven’t had a president with real strategic vision for over forty years. Lyndon Johnson had it at home, with his Great Society and his strong laws against discrimination. But his vision of foreign policy was a Texan’s caricature. It gave us our first losing war.

Ronald Reagan had a grasp of foreign policy, but his economic “vision” led to our multiple disasters today. No matter who wins this election, that kind of cartoon ideology is history. Dubya’s father once called it “voodoo economics.” Alan Greenspan repudiated it last week. But McCain still spouts trickle-down ideology at every stump speech.

If you think that lower taxes for the rich will cure our economic ills, by all means vote for McCain. But if you want to see who has real strategic vision both at home and abroad, read on.

On foreign policy, Obama consistently has been way ahead of the crowd. Here’s what he said in October 2002, five months before we invaded Iraq:
“I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
To understand the importance of this statement, think about its timing. At the time virtually every member of the Cabinet, Congress and the media—including John McCain—was beating the drums for war. Everyone believed we would “win” in months, take few casualties, and spend less than $50 billion. Obama’s nascent career was on the line, but he had a clear, contrary strategic vision. And his vision proved right.

Sure, the so-called “surge” has had some success. Obama has acknowledged it. Not only did he acknowledge it; he did so in the lion’s den, during his first interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. There he said, “I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody had anticipated.” That acknowledgment was something else we haven’t seen for a long, long time: a leader who never lets reality take a back seat to ideology or to games of political “gotcha!”

But the surge’s success detracts nothing from Obama’s strategic vision. Every word of his 2002 prediction came true.

If people like Secretary Gates and General Petraeus have been able to avoid a complete disaster, they did so because they had the strategic vision that Dubya and That Idiot Rumsfeld lacked. They also got help from something that (as Obama also said) no one could have predicted: the Sunni Awakening.

That fortunate turn in our favor derived from Al Qaeda in Iraq grossly overplaying its hand. No one can predict or count on an enemy’s blunder, but you can exploit one if it comes.

Now fast-forward to the present day. Joe Klein in Time outlines a frank exchange between Obama and General Petraeus before the general took his current post as Centcom Commander, responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan. Respectfully, Obama showed Petraeus who would be boss if Obama won and how he would lead. He (Obama) would put the most important war first.

That would be our losing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There Al Qaeda Central and the Taliban are rapidly growing in strength, right next to a weak government (Pakistan’s) that controls some fifty nuclear weapons. Now that Petraeus commands both operations, he is coming around to Obama’s point of view. He’s even beginning to talk about negotiating with the Taliban, to co-opt the less radical elements and split the movement.

In contrast, McCain still thinks we have to “win” in Iraq—whatever that means—before paying any serious attention to the increasingly dangerous disasters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also ridicules talking to enemies without preconditions—something that our government has done consistently throughout the last half century. If you like continuing to ignore our worst enemy and to abandon diplomacy while we fight ghosts from the Vietnam War, by all means, vote for McCain.

Obama was also way ahead of everyone else about Pakistan. In his comprehensive speech on terrorism fifteen months ago, he warned against putting all our policy eggs in the single frayed basked of Musharraf’s military rule. He made that strategic call before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and before restoration of democratic (albeit weak) government in that strategic country. If more people had listened to him then, would Bhutto still be alive? If she would, Pakistan would be a far better ally, for she was vastly more popular than her husband (now Pakistan’s president) and far more adamant about fighting terrorism.

On domestic policy, McCain remains a fighter pilot, not a serious thinker. According to Klein, here’s what a prominent Republican said about McCain’s suspending his campaign to rush back to Washington to “face” the economic crisis:
“[McCain was] the least creative person in the room at the President’s White House meeting. He simply had no ideas. He didn’t even have any good questions.”
In contrast, Obama had good questions but was conscious of his lack of power (as a mere candidate) to do anything constructive. Once again, realism trumped politics in Obama’s strategic vision.

If you want to see strategic economic thinking at its best, consider Obama’s economic priorities. In three short sentences, he nailed precisely our chief economic problem—the one responsible for the deep downturn in our general economy that is now just beginning:
“The engine of economic growth for the past twenty years is not going to be there for the next twenty. That was consumer spending. Basically, we turbocharged this economy based on cheap credit. [We can’t continue that approach] because there is too much deleveraging taking place, too much debt.”
Has John McCain ever said anything so insightful and prescient about our economy?

But Obama didn’t just see the problem. He had a solution, too. Since our over-indebted consumer can’t pick up the slack, he proposed a strategic national program to achieve energy independence. He described it as follows:
“[T]here is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. . . . That’s going to be my Number One priority when I get into office.”
If you want still more evidence of the strategic vision gap, consider the two candidates’ choices of running mates. Obama picked Joe Biden, the most experienced foreign-policy expert in our Democratic leadership, and one of only three heavyweights in our entire presidential field from the very beginning. (The other two are McCain and Obama himself.) McCain picked Sarah Palin, who knows nothing about foreign policy or economics, has done nothing in those fields, and appeals to the most radical know-nothing elements in the Republican party.

Obama picked an experienced old hand who (had he had any charisma) might have been a serious rival for the presidency. McCain picked a lightweight’s lightweight at a critical time in our history, knowing he would be the oldest president ever. Who had the best strategic vision there?

We live in an incredibly large, diverse, complex and highly technological society of 300 million people. When crunch time comes for us, a single individual often makes the key decisions. Bad decisions have given us an uncertain outcome in Iraq, a losing war in Afghanistan, a potential catastrophe in Pakistan, a disastrous energy policy, and an economy in shambles.

Under these circumstances, nothing is more important than strategic vision. Another four years—let alone eight—without it, and we will find ourselves on the verge of third-world status.

Obama has strategic vision. McCain does not. So there is only one rational choice.

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